Book Review: Aging and Loving: Christian Faith and Sexuality in Later Life

”Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’” (Genesis 18:11-12)

Sarah needed to read this book. So do you, if you are ready to deal with “the fact that interest in sex, sexual desires, and sexual activities continue to be a part of life among older adults” (p. 30). Sexuality among elders isn’t new, and both healthy laughter and snide comments persist. But never have there been so many of us, and sexual liberation has surrounded our whole lives!

How does our Christian faith inform and liberate our sexuality in later life?

This book’s question is more serious than Sarah’s, but her frivolity also fits well in the quest. After all, our human, mortal, and sexual realities are more than a little funny, at their physical and spiritual best, but at their worst, our sexual powers can also be deceitful, destructive, and evil. So while we are living longer with good health than any previous generation and most of our lives have been freed from many of the fears and taboos of our pre-birth control ancestors, we still have vocations to serve our neighbors, beginning with those intimately close to us.

Our trusted teacher, Dr. James M. Childs Jr. is the Joseph A. Sittler Professor emeritus and former Dean of Trinity Lutheran Seminary. He has published widely in Christian ethics and was the Director of Sexuality Studies for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He writes clearly and weaves a compelling narrative in three parts, each with two chapters, regularly alerting the reader to the whole. He concludes with an appendix on “Pornography and Sexual Self-Pleasuring.” He also has a sub-plot: “I think meeting the theological challenge of heterosexism is a good starting point for the development of an inclusive theology of human sexuality that also speaks to sexual life in old age and the important theme of vocation” (p. 96).

Part One, “Confronting Perception and Reality,” includes chapters on “Attitudes Toward Aging and Sexuality” and “Sexuality in Older Age: A Reality Check.” These chapters confront the myths and stereotypes of agism in a youth culture that nurtures “humanity’s pretense of independent existence” (p. 18). What a sad and shaming story that is! We were created for relationships, indeed dependence upon God’s everlasting love. “From the standpoint of the Christian faith, life at all ages is not only sacred as created in the divine image but also endowed with a gospel vocation that permeates all of life. Our sexual lives are also a venue for that calling” (p. 24). And in fact, many elders have joyful sexual stories. “Whatever expressions of physical intimacy are practiced or possible, these people find their sex lives meaningful and pleasurable” (p. 38).

Part Two, “Engaging Reality,” explores chapters on “Living Options Among Older Adults” and “Sexual Life in Long-Term Care Facilities.” This is practical stuff. Many families and faith communities have been confronted with the non-marital cohabitation of young adults, with

diverse gender identities. But what becomes of Judeo-Christian understandings of marriage and its legal definitions when non-married elders move in together? And what are the moral and legal responsibilities of long-term care facilities when their “intimacy requires privacy” (p. 67)?

It’s all interesting, and the loving stories truly are touching. But even senior sex is complicated, when it is also remembered that human intimacy requires trust. The range of Christian and Jewish traditions mentioned in these chapters reveals the varied ways in which the regulation of sexual behaviors in civil and faith communities seeks to protect the vulnerable (p. 115). When Marvin was “Having the Best Time of My Life” in a retirement community with women who just wanted to “fool around,” the fun ended when he became an HPV spreader (p. 83).

Part Three, “Mapping the Way of Christian Love” explores chapters on “Sexuality, Values, and Vocation” and “Aging, Sexuality, and the Ethics of Christian Love.” Here we have a rich, but abbreviated version of Dr. Childs’ testimony “in almost all my writings” to “these values of the kingdom of God as a revelation of the good toward which we strive in love” (p. 144, n. 29). This is the main course of the feast, for which the previous servings (chapters 1-4) have prepared us.

My limitations as a biblical laborer will be evident to the theologian-ethicists. But with the range of readers who will benefit from this book, I want to inquire about the theology of hope with which Dr. Childs’ reframes marriage as “an order of anticipation, an avenue of witness,” rather than merely an “order of creation” (p. 106) or one of the “orders of history” (p. 99). It’s a glorious move, grounding heterosexual marriage “in a future that transcends it,” whereby “other sorts of loving and just sexual relationships can also be orders of anticipation,” including “gay and lesbian unions, for example.” Then “faithful seniors who are cohabiting can fulfill this vocation of anticipation … in the openness of all things to God’s future” (pp. 106-107).

This foray into “relationality and community as the essence of Trinitarian unity” is beautiful, “centered on the construct of perichoresis, or the mutual indwelling of the persons of the Trinity with one another in the bonds of love” (p. 108). Perhaps such a journey into the divine is the right doxology in Christian traditions of spiritual transcendence and ethical “ideals” (see pp. 92,93,117), where marriage is a sacrament. And this may be a promising remedy for rigid “orders of creation,” drawing us beyond our earthly selves into the communion and community of divine love that exceeds our grasp, “or what’s a heaven for?”

But the biblical story is about a down-to-earth God, creating and loving physical creatures. Marriage and sexuality are first mortal and mundane in their glory. As Childs consistently attests, “To be human is to be sexual in the unity of body and spirit” (p. 92). Christian freedom, including sexual liberation, is an earthly vocation. As the earthy Saxon Martin Luther said:

“A Christian is lord of all, completely free of everything.

A Christian is a servant, completely attentive to the needs of all.”

And Luther drew his ethic of freedom from the Apostle Paul:

“All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial.

All things are lawful, but not all things build up.” (I Cor. 10:23)

“Completing creation is God’s eschatological action that brings a new heaven and a new earth into being” (p. 102). Meanwhile God’s law and civic ordinances protect the vulnerable, and ethical human agency seeks to make the world a more just and trustworthy place, including in sexual (and economic!) relationships in human communities.

“Was it good for you?”

This customer satisfaction question is often just a performance review after sexual activity. That’s clearly better than no communication about intimate relationships. But the question may also express the Christian caring and loving humanity which healthy sexuality can convey.

Since we humans are all sexual creatures, we have needs and desires for physical intimacies. Whatever our physical or mental abilities/disabilities and our gender identities/sexual responses and our ages or community roles, our capacities and vulnerabilities are deeply personal, but with profound communal effects. As the 2009 ELCA statement on sexuality noted, “This vocation to build relationships of trust is not a private matter; it is part of the Christian witness in the community and the Christian’s calling in all situations” (p. 58). Thus even human elders in the waiting room for heaven are called to steward our sexuality in freedom from shame and in freedom for the well-being of the neighbor and the world.

Thank you Dr. James Childs for guiding our quest: How does our Christian faith inform and liberate our sexuality in later life?

And thank you Sarah for your wry question: “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”

We hope so!

David Tiede

David L. Tiede is Professor of New Testament and President emeritus of Luther Seminary.